“Let the dead bury their own dead . . . no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Don’t you just hate it when Jesus says things that sound mean? He does that sometimes: he says stuff that, on the surface, sounds insensitive or even cruel. Like that time he told his disciples what they should do if their hand… or their foot… or their eye causes them to stumble. You remember, right? Cut it off! Pluck it out! (Mark 9:43-47) But we know Jesus isn’t cruel, and that he loves us. So, what are we to make of these rather stern-sounding admonitions to a couple of would-be followers in our Gospel story today?
I wonder if Jesus is talking about priorities. Jewish funeral custom requires that the deceased be buried as soon as possible… on the day of, or in any case no later than the day after, their death. So, I’m pretty sure that Jesus wasn’t disqualifying the fellow who felt called to “bury his father” before he could become a follower simply because of a few hours delay. Jesus was speaking to the man’s internal conflict about earthly, versus heavenly, priorities. And we all have those. Sometimes we’re afraid to let go of our earthly priorities because they’re so… tangible and rewarding. They touch every aspect of our daily lives: where and how we live, what we eat, what we drive, who we associate with… how we spend our leisure time. And there’s nothing wrong with having goals and plans for our lives. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying life. We stray into sin, however, when our earthly priorities become so all-consuming that they constitute a barrier between us and God.
We sometimes feel we need to “clear the decks” of temporal distractions: finishing our education, finding a career, getting our finances together, raising our children, ensuring that our retirement plans are in order, all those pesky logistical issues connected with our earthly sojourn, before fully giving into God. We want to learn to become responsible, successful humans before we start thinking about all this “God stuff.” And there’s nothing wrong with being responsible… God wants us to be responsible. But what God has in mind is our learning to be responsible with a capital “R.” What God wants for us is that we learn to fully-embrace our role as Kingdom-bringers. We must always remember that the purpose of our earthly sojourn is to leverage all of our learning and success for the sake of the Kingdom. We must never forget that everything we do… everything we have… every blessing we’ve ever received… has a purpose: and that purpose is to help us spread the Good News of God’s salvation. If you haven’t figured that out yet, you may be in trouble. You may be on the wrong path.
And if you have figured it out—or think that you’ve figured it out: that all of the blessings you’ve received in this life are to be paid forward by spreading the Good News of God’s salvation… and if you are working at putting those blessings to work every day for the sake of the Kingdom… then good on you. But don’t get complacent… keep thinking about it… keep working to discern God’s movement and purpose in your life. Our God is not a God of the status quo. People are hungry for God and for the Kingdom, whether or not they know it or admit it to themselves. And God hears the cries of his people… and has a plan for their salvation… and that plan involves you. Before you were born, God made you to be a Kingdom-bringer. Never forget that.
The second fellow that Jesus spoke with wanted time to say farewell to family and friends at home before setting out with Jesus. And Jesus told him, “unh-uh,” don’t look back. That sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it? After all, God gave you your family and friends… they were (and are!) integral in your becoming the person you have become. How can Jesus ask you to just walk away from them… without even saying goodbye? Again, it’s a matter of priorities… I’m pretty sure that Jesus wasn’t asking the man to abandon the people he loves. What I hear Jesus saying is, “OK, so you want to make a commitment to do God’s work. That’s a good thing… and it’s plenty. It’s going to take everything you’ve got. So, get to it, and quit worrying about earthly stuff. You do what God is asking you to do, and let God take care of the rest. Speak the Good News of God’s Kingdom far-and-wide. Never let anyone or any thing distract you from that work.”
Jesus’ metaphor of “putting our hands to the plow” is helpful to me in this regard. None of us can plow a straight furrow when we are busy looking backwards… over our shoulder. We plow the earth to prepare it for sowing… to help turn it into “good soil” that will yield “thirty and sixty and even a hundredfold” (Mark 4:8). Of course, if the ground has not been properly prepared, the harvest will suffer. And the harvest we’re talking about is God’s harvest. Bishop Wright reflects on the nature of God’s harvest when he writes:
“Harvest” is how Jesus describes the world – how he speaks of innumerable opportunities. Harvest is what God wants us to pray for. Harvest is God’s purpose for God’s people in the world. Harvest is a positive use of time. Harvest is how God says, “be my friend.”
Harvest is the work God needs partners for. Harvest is how Jesus says, “this is an urgent matter, please focus.” The Church is harvest made for harvest. Too few laborers focused on harvest is Jesus’ sadness and the Church’s sin. The Church was not breathed into existence to tend itself, the church was made for increasing God’s harvest.
So, we have our marching orders. The world is often worldly… full of idols and false paths. Keep God and God’s purposes for your life your number one priority. We are sent forth to be in the world… but not of it (cf. John 17:14-16). Don’t get distracted from the work God has given you to do. There will be times when worldly cares and responsibilities may tempt you to hesitate in following your vocation as a Kingdom-bringer and Christ follower. Don’t give in! Stay the course. Put your worldly concerns in God’s hands. Keep your hands on the plow and your eyes on the work that God has given you to do. Your faithfulness will be rewarded.